Social Conflicts in RPGs

Episode 114: social conflicts in RPGs

Main Topic

We’re back and we’re intimidating goons, charming cult leaders and fast-talking the slow-witted. This is our look at the use of social conflicts in RPGs. By this, we don’t mean arguments over whose turn it was to bring the snacks or whether that roll of 00 was really cocked. Instead, we’re talking about the use of social skills in games to resolve conflicts. That said, we do mention a little bit about what to do when out-of-game conflicts bleed into play.

Fisticuffs, of course. Fisticuffs resolve everything.

We talk a little about the kinds of things we expect social mechanics to resolve in our games, how we implement them and how we’ve seen them go wrong. Especially in a game like Call of Cthulhu, social conflicts are a vital tool for the players, but not everyone can agree on what they do. Are they a form of subtle influence, a way of cutting through ambiguity or a means to control other characters?

“OK, I rolled 01 on my Persuade roll. Dance for me!”

News

Illness prevented us from meeting in person this week to record last-minute inserts. We have tried to use the wonders of modern technology to work around this, so we at least have a news segment. The first thing to report is that we are starting work on issue 3 of The Blasphemous Tome. This is the fanzine we produce for those generous people who back us via Patreon. It only exists in a physical form (unlike its creators, who have transcended and exist on many planes). Our aim this year is to send it out with our Christmas cards. Of course, events may prevent this, but we hope to give you something blasphemous to put under your tree this year.

The Blasphemous Tome issue 1 cover

We even taught this issue to sing carols. Well, “sing” “carols”. It’s the thought that counts.

The other news item takes the form of some thanks and a mini-review. While we were in the US last month, we were delighted to meet Evan Dorkin at our signing at The Compleat Strategist in New York City. As I’ve mentioned before, Evan has been one of my favourite comic creators since I encountered Milk and Cheese in the early 1990s. He brought us copies of the first collection of Calla Cthulhu, the new Lovecraftian comic he is writing with his wife, Sarah Dyer. It is an action-packed, young-adult take on the Mythos, which still has plenty to appeal to old farts like me. This collection is published by Dark Horse Comics, and you can read Calla’s ongoing adventures via the Stela Comics app.

Calla Cthulhu cover

Other Stuff

Our inability to meet this week also means that we were unable to record our usual Patreon thanks. We have a couple of people to sing to, but you have been spared for this episode. On the other hand, this should only add to the sense of mounting dread. There is no escape.

We’re back, and we’re doing unspeakable things to innocent villagers. It’s all right, though. Master told us to. And who are we to question Master? Generous Master feeds us only the best table scraps, sometimes before they go mouldy. Kindly Master keeps a roof over our heads and it hardly leaks on sunny days. Gentle Master only beats us when we deserve it. We seem to deserve it a lot. Master is wise and benevolent, or so he keeps telling us. We would never dare to contradict Master. We love Master.

All of this is our snivelling way of introducing our look at Paul Czege’s 2003 RPG, My Life with Master, published by his own Half Meme Press imprint. My Life with Master describes itself as “a roleplaying game of villainy, self-loathing and unrequited love”. In it, players take on the roles of minions (no, not the wacky Tic Tac type) who, driven by self-loathing, carry out the increasingly horrific commands of an abusive Master until they hit breaking point.

Don’t worry! My Life with Master is not as bleak as all this makes it sound. It is shot through with black humour, with plenty of comic relief to take the edge off the horror. More importantly, it follows the attempts of the minions to connect with other human beings, overcoming the self-loathing that makes them such perfect instruments of cruelty. These attempts finally give the minions strength to rise up against their Master, but only after much suffering and degradation.

Oh, and then they kill Master. Ungrateful wretches!

Speaking of being compelled to do horrible things by outside forces, we sing to some new Patreon backers in this episode. We have had a recent influx of new backers, and we still have a few more to sing to, but we are limiting ourselves to two songs per episode. This is partly to give Paul time to twist and compress our voices into the aural bezoars that squat deep in the stomach of an episode, but mostly to avoid overwhelming our listeners. Hearing more than two of our cacophonous soundscapes at once risks incurring dancing teeth, brain palpitations and explosive tinnitus.

And, in extreme cases, spontaneous bowties.

A large part of this surge in patrons is due to the imminence of issue 2 of The Blasphemous Tome, our backer-only print fanzine. We now have a cut-off date: the 10th of March. If you are a backer on this date, you will receive at least one copy of the ‘zine. See this article for more details.

In our introductory chat, we mention that Paul recently visited the Bodleian Library in Oxford, finding plenty of gaming inspiration but no copies of the Necronomicon, and that Scott was a recent guest on the Miskatonic University Podcast. We also get rather excited by our upcoming 100th episode, due out in a fortnight. We’re as surprised as you are that we made it this far!

Episode 96: Pontypool

We’re back and we’re trying to make even less sense than usual. This is for your protection. Pontypool has taught us the hidden dangers that lie in meaning, so we’re going to follow the advice of William S Burroughs and exterminate all rational thought.

William S Burroughs

Cut the word lines. And step out into silence. It is yours. It is everybody’s. You do not see the trees when you walk down the street because of ‘The “Word” Tree’.

While Pontypool is not based on the work of Burroughs, his influence coats it like a viscous splatter of undifferentiated tissue. This is possibly the strangest zombie film ever made, if you can even call it a zombie film, more concerned with linguistics than brain-eating. It deals with a maddening memetic plague, spreading like a virus through the English language. Any word could be the one that sends you into a spiral of cannibalistic insanity.

Saying “week” instead of “fortnight” has this effect on me.

While there is little action or violence in Pontypool, its strange ideas, claustrophobic setting and slow build up of dread are all great inspiration for horror RPGs. We spend some time picking these elements apart and discussing how we would use them in our games.

To be fair, this kind of thing happens in most games I run.

And speaking of horrible things coming from human mouths, spreading madness and suffering, there is more singing in this episode. We have a new $5 backer on Patreon, so we are singing our thanks in our own, indescribable manner. In fact, we have a lot of thanks to offer in this episode. This is probably because of the upcoming cut-off for issue 2 of our backer-only fanzine, The Blasphemous Tome. Time is running out!

The faces we pull while singing are far more alarming than this.

As we mention at the start of the episode, Matt appeared on a recent panel discussion hosted by Thom Raley of Into the Darkness. If you fancy learning more about scenario design or simply want to marvel at Matt’s groaning bookshelves, click below!

And in our Lovecraftian Word of the Fortnight Week segment, we mention a marvellous sketch from Burnistoun that mixes Lovecraftian horror and the mundanity of dealing with the council. Well, here it is in all its sanity-blasting glory.

If you liked that, you may also enjoy their cosmic-horror-tinged Epiphany Continuum sketch.

 

We’re back and we’re setting our long-range scanners to search the cosmos for the insidious influence of the Mythos. One of the things that set Lovecraft’s work apart from the Gothic tales that had previously dominated the genre was the way it incorporated elements of science fiction. This isn’t to say that Lovecraft was the first writer to mix horror and SF—they have been kissing cousins since Mary Shelly wrote Frankenstein.

Charles Ogle as Frankenstein's monster

Pucker up!

Instead, Lovecraft used science fiction elements to make a kind of supernatural horror that had no reliance on the supernatural itself. By using aliens as his gods and monsters, he created something that felt both familiar and utterly different from anything that had gone before. H G Wells’s Martians may have had tentacles and travelled to Earth on meteors, but no one ever worshipped them as gods.

Maybe they would have inspired more awe had they looked less like testicles.

Our discussion focuses on how a number of classic science fiction tropes are used in Lovecraft and Call of Cthulhu. The main topics we cover are aliens, space travel, other dimensions, time travel and mad science. We also look at some published games and Call of Cthulhu settings that bring the SF aspects of the Mythos to the forefront. We wrap things up by brainstorming some science fiction scenario ideas of our own.

We never said we used our own brains…

This episode also sees a brief audio review of a new collection of Mythos stories, The Private Life of Elder Things. If you want to read a more in-depth review, we published one recently.

As we also mention this episode, there is still time to ensure you receive a copy of issue 2 of The Blasphemous Tome. This is the fanzine that we produce exclusively for people who back the podcast on Patreon. If you are a backer at the time of release (probably in early February) then you will receive at least one copy. Please see our recent update for more details.